Incredible Animal Rock Art Discovered in Tibet

Lake Namtso, one of two holy lakes in Tibet, forms the centre of the valley floor and is surrounded by the Nyanchen Tanglha mountain range. In 1986, Robert Hefner, President of the Bradshaw Foundation, found himself standing here on top of the world (or what felt like it) a little while before he made a remarkable discovery. This is how he described it: “The deep blue Tibetan sky encompassed barren, craggy, rocky peaks, full of spectacular geological structures typical of the Tibetan plateau. Beside the road was a pile of carved religious rocks and a pole with many fluttering prayer flags. Only 300 metres below was a sapphire lake enclosed by snowy peaks: the great valley of Lake Namtso.”

Hefner and a companion walked in a different direction to the rest of his party and chanced upon two small caves. They measured three to four metres high and two to three metres deep, with wonderful paintings covering their rock walls. At first sceptical, he realized the cave paintings could be well preserved here, out of the weather and in a dry environment. It was also an isolated area, with just a few pilgrims or nomad yak herders passing by.

The smooth walls of the caves were an off-white limestone cut through by a blue mineral that could have been azurite. The drawings were spectacular. The pigment used was red-brown and yellow-brown, with figures about 15 to 25 cm tall. Much of Tibetan rock art has figures in the drawings, often riding a horse according to John Bellezza, a leading expert in the field. The oriental appearance would make sense given the history of Tibet.

Bellezza, who supplied the image of the horse (below) found in a Lake Namtso cave, had this to say about the number of animals depicted: “The prominent depiction of animals can be further attributed to the role they have played in indigenous religious traditions, mythology, spirit-mediumship and lore surrounding the old clans of the region. The most common animal in Upper Tibet rock art is the wild yak or drong, a potent symbol of Tibet’s distinct identity. Horses, mostly with mounted figures, are also common. Probably the full range of native ungulates (gazelle, antelope, argali, blue sheep and deer) are depicted, as well as carnivores, birds, fish and other animals. Animals are frequently portrayed in isolation or as the quarry of hunters but also in what are ostensibly magico-ritual compositions”.

The rock art that Hefner found will be studied for generations so that others may learn all they can about them and their meaning to the lives of the Tibetans who painted them. Hefner has many more pictures that you can see in his gallery.


Many thanks to the Bradshaw Foundation for allowing me to use their images